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[INTERVIEW] Samuel Peralta on Being a Physicist Poet, Indie Publishing, and THE FUTURE CHRONICLES

sam peraltaSamuel Peralta’s poetry has won awards from the BBC, the UK Poetry Society, the Palanca Award, and has been shortlisted for the Arc Poem of the Year. His short-story, Hereafter, was an honorable mention in John Joseph Adams’  The Best of American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 anthology. Samuel is perhaps most known for his series of SFF anthologies, The Future Chronicles, which has put out ten best selling volumes in the past year alone.

Connect with him on twitter @semaphore.

Samuel kindly sat down to chat with me about his poetry, the state of Indie publishing, and The Future Chronicles.

Anthony Vicino: You might be best known for your FUTURE CHRONICLES series, but you got your start in a somewhat unlikely way. Tell us about your poetry and how that paved the path to short stories and then curating anthologies.

Samuel Peralta: I’ve been writing poetry since forever. They’ve been published by small presses, won awards, but poetry has never been a bestselling genre. I had, I can’t remember the exact number now, four million downloads of my poetry from my website, by any measure an amazing number – but amazingly few sales.

One day, in 2014 I found myself in a bookstore, admiring the poetry of Margaret Atwood. She has, at last count, around twenty volumes of poems. From the shelf I pulled out The Journals of Susanna Moodie and leafed through pages of indescribable beauty, pain, insight. Every poem was a poem I wish I’d written. And yet, of Atwood’s array of volumes on the shelf, all iconic titles – The Edible Woman, The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Surfacing, Life Before Man, The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam – none were poetry, save one. Or are they? Atwood’s prose reads beautifully, almost as if it was poetry

Reading the works of other authors, works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Sandman by Neil Gaiman, I have come to believe that poetry can be found everywhere, even in the novel.

I began to write a speculative fiction novel – Atwwod, Ishiguro, Gaiman were my touchstones – but my training in metaphor and concise narrative turned out to be more suited to writing short stories. I wrote a spec short story, “Trauma Room”, and shopped it around. That one story landed me commissions to write two stories – one in David Gatewood’s Synchronic (“Hereafter”), and another in John Joseph Adams’ Help Fund My Robot Army (“Liberty”, subtitled ‘Seeking Support for a Writ of Habeas Corpus for a Non-Human Being’). I even snuck in a poem in one of the stories.

I didn’t know that those stories were going to be commissioned, so in parallel, I began to organize a third anthology, The Robot Chronicles – which was eventually edited by David Gatewood, who’d become a friend – around another story I’d written, “Humanity”.

By this time, both Synchronic and Help Fund My Robot Army were rising up the charts, dragging me along for the ride. I hit the Top 100 SF Authors on Amazon within three months of entering the genre, with a total genre output of under 6,000 words.

The Robot Chronicles would find similar success; that spec story “Trauma Room” eventually made its way into The Telepath Chronicles. Now there were two books, then three, in what would become The Future Chronicles anthology series. We’re at ten volumes now, and I find myself an accidental anthologist.

AV: Do you still write poetry?

SP: Yes, I still do. Right now I’m focusing on my adaptations of the Chieko poems from the work of the Japanese poet Kotaro Takamura. The Chieko poems trace Kotaro Takamura’s life with Chieko Naganuma, an iconoclastic woman artist – their attraction, separation, marriage, his coming to terms with her illness and death, and the power of love.

These are definitely not translations; they’re interpretations of the essence of the poems, in a similar vein to Ezra Pound’s adaptation of Li Po’s The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter. You can definitely see this in a side-by-side comparison of my own work and the inspiration poem.

I believe my work complements the beautiful translations done by talented scholars such as Leanne Ogasawara, Paul Archer and John G. Peters; in fact, I’ve received encouragement from them for this project.

To a Woman Now Gone

Sparrows tap at the window glass, and I stir.

Beside me your gloxinia blossoms, as if you were here.

And all my senses suddenly awaken to a morning breeze

Wafting in at 5 a.m. with your fragrant ease.

White sheets flung off, I stretch my arms in the light,

In this morning sunshine that is your smile.

Your whisper in me asks, how will this day be unfolding?

You stand and watch me, all-seeing, all-knowing.

As if I have become a child;

As if you have become a mother, mine.

Here still, here still.

You have become everything, what moves, what fills.

And though I am the least worthy of your grace,

Here I am – by you surrounded, enfolded, embraced.

I do think of my short stories as prose poems, and my approach is similar, writing the first draft lyrically, shoring up imagery and narrative using research. I edit my poems as mercilessly as I do my own short stories, so the only difference is how I use the tools. See the couplets in the poem above? I still use that in my prose, just more subtly.

AV: Your prose has a beautiful, lyrical style while still managing to unpack deep, meaningful stories. What’s your approach to writing? Do you start with a character, an idea, a turn of phrase? Do the words come out beautiful in the first draft, or is it like polishing dirty diamonds?

SP: I think of myself more as a craftsman. I believe that craftsmanship is essential to artistry – and I’ve brought that over from poetry to prose. The techniques are the same.

I start with an idea, and a strong character. I put together an outline, very bare-bones. Then I write, and it’s very stream-of-consciousness. Because of decades of writing poetry, the writing comes out very poetically, somewhat ungrammatical, but if I can capture the general effect I want, then it’s good enough.

I then go through several stages of edits, tightening the prose, finding the right word. How many edits depends on the complexity of the idea or characters, and the success of the first draft – but there are two stages I never miss.

One stage is what I call the tension edit: I go through all the scenes, re-order them for the highest tension, and edit out words, scenes, paragraphs that don’t contribute to the momentum. This gives me a very compact, very efficient, very impactful story.

The other necessary stage is the spoken edit: I read the story aloud and pay attention to the musicality and rhythm of the story. I believe that as a reader goes through the story, his mind unconsciously reads the words aloud, and the rhythmic and musical qualities of the phrasing help in their appreciation of the piece.

AV: Despite being a poet, you’re also a physicist. A background you use to interesting effect in your stories. To some, these may seem like opposing sides of a coin (an analytic side counterbalanced by a creative, free-flowing side). Do you see it like this or have you found a synchronicity between the two?

SP: As I’ve said elsewhere, a poet looks at the world a little differently from others, and so does a scientist. I am very fortunate to be both.

I find beauty in the cosmological consequences of dark matter, as much as I do in the written and spoken word. I appreciate the beauty in Heisenberg’s principle as much as Matisse’s economy of line. But yes, I’m probably one of the few poets in the world who literally dreams about tensor equations.

AV: You’ve won numerous awards for your poetry, were an Honorable Mention in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015 anthology curated by John Joseph Adams, and have curated your own series of best-selling anthologies. Out of all this, what’re you most proud of?

SP: I’ve found myself absolutely glowing when a new author tells me they’ve just received their first piece of fan mail, or their spin-off series has taken off, or that someone has discovered them, because of a story they’d published in The Future Chronicles. That is just marvelous.

I wrote a poem called “Man Warning Two Boys” responding to a lithograph by David Blackwood, about two brothers on an ice sheet, and a man fruitlessly warning them off. When my father read that poem, he openly wept. That was one of my best personal moments.

I wrote another poem called “Radar” which was a first-person piece about a woman discovering, in the shower, a lump on her breast, then confirmation that it was cancer. I received scores of letters about that poem. People printed it out and gave it to their friends, mothers, aunts, daughters. So many people identified with my character’s despair, and her fight to find a reason to continue living.

That’s where it counts, when you connect, when you’ve achieved a shared epiphany. I can’t express how amazing those moment are, when they happen. Those are my proudest moments.

AV: As a predominately Indie author, what was it like seeing your story “Hereafter” shortlisted for The BASFF? Did it lend a layer of validation?

SP: Definitely! I think “Hereafter” was one of the very few stories selected in that volume, that was published independently; it was collected in the indie anthology Synchronic, edited by David Gatewood.

Most importantly for me, that spotlight helped validate part of the vision I have in putting together The Future Chronicles, that independent writers are capable of telling amazing stories, at par with any out there. I’ve put myself in a the difficult situation of making the sole decision on which authors are commissioned for a specific Chronicle, but I also feel that “Hereafter” has helped validate those selections.

AV: You’ve been writing less and less these days as your schedule fills up with all the work that goes into The Future Chronicles. Do you think that’ll change in the future? Perhaps delegate some of the work for the Chronicles so you can focus on your own writing? Have you considered branching off into longer work? Perhaps a Peralta novel?

I’m definitely hoping I’ll find the time to do more writing.

One thing I’ve done is to introduce new work-flow processes for two new series within The Future Chronicles. I’ve delegated some of the submission process and initial story review work in the Alt.History series to my co-editor, and for the Chronicle Worlds series to the canon-owners, where appropriate. This has worked to some degree, but I’m not sure how far I can apply that to the more mainstream Chronicles titles.

I’ve found some outlet by being creative in the Forewords to the Future Chronicles, but it’s not quite the same high as writing a full fictional piece. So I’m going to continue to eke out time to write stories in between the anthology tasks. I have story ideas for sequels to every one of my published stories, the questions always are: Which one do I tackle first? When do I find to write it?

Meanwhile, for novel-length works, I’ve written the first chapter and an outline—9,500 words!—for a novella that’s fluctuating between titles. Its title as of noon today is Coriolis Force. Perhaps I’ll try using NaNoWriMo as a way to sustain the momentum for this one.

Like all writers, I have several things on the burner, and I have about 4,000 words of a first chapter for a novella that draws together some of the story elements of “Trauma Room”, “Humanity”, “Liberty” and “Faster” (from The Powers That Be). This novella has the working title “A Labyrinth of Steel.”

AV: Okay, so let’s talk a bit about the Chronicles. This series has been massively successful, with a new release hitting the shelves seemingly every month. And these aren’t just slapdash affairs. You’re consistently pulling down some big hitters (Seanan McGuire, Hugh Howey, Ken Liu, Annie Bellet), while churning out beautiful cover after beautiful cover. How’s this machine run, Sam? Is there magic involved?

SP: Willpower. Focus. Having a lot of friends who are rooting for you.

It’s much the same as doing the decathlon. You have all of these events in front of you, they’re the upcoming titles in the series. That crowd is cheering you, willing you to win, and you can’t help but do your best in the long jump. So you do it!

Then you dust yourself off, and start warming up for the shot put. You can’t worry about how you did in the long jump, that’s in the past. You can’t worry too much about the high jump, that’s still in the future. You’ve got to focus all you have on doing your best in the shot put – because there’s that crowd cheering you again.

And you do it all over again, giving your best every time, right up to the javelin throw and the 1500 meter events.

AV: After an impressive first year, where do The Future Chronicles go next? How do you keep raising the bar, upping the stakes? Where does world domination fall in your five year plan?chronicles

SP: We’ve published ten volumes now, and followers of the Chronicles know that there are at least ten more volumes already planned, starting with The Cyborg Chronicles scheduled roughly for November this year, all the way to The Mars Chronicles in late 2016.

This includes the new series, Chronicle Worlds, where selected authors are allowing others to put together stories in their existing worlds. In this series we already have authors writing for the worlds of Paradisi (interplanetary stories), Feyland (faery and gaming), Drifting Isle (steampunk) and Half Way Home (from Hugh Howey’s book of the same name). CW operates a little differently from the other titles because it’s open submission and there’s an additional canon-based review before inclusion in the anthology.

We also began an alternative history series within the Chronicles, starting with Alt.History 101, published a couple of months back. Authors are now finishing up their stories for Alt.History 102, due in early 2016, with an Alt.History 103 scheduled for later in the year. The theme called for treatment a little differently from the mainstream Chronicles.

In the end, I don’t think it’ll be easy to keep raising the bar. I never set out to be an anthologist—it’s why my name as creator and series editor never really appeared on the regular covers, only on the inside pages. What I’d really like to do is find more time to write.

The Future Chronicles might well have a completion date. One day, I might stand and look at that shelf in my library and say, “There it is. That was an excellent run.” At that point, will there be a TFC: The Next Generation? I think it’s too early to tell.

AV: I imagine you read a ton of submissions for The Future Chronicles, but what else do you have on your shelves these days? Anything new and noteworthy we should pick up? How about television shows or movies? What helps you fill your creative tank?

SP: Everything fills up the creative tank – NASA Pluto fly-by photographs, Ex Machina and Star Wars, a new book by Margaret Atwood, the paintings of Gottfried Helnwein, a new poem by Sierra DeMulder, lyrics from Leave a Trace by Chvrches, a news article on Elon Musk’s Mars aspirations or on artificial limbs made friendlier by licensing Disney-owned characters, the latest Surface mobile computer, the patent for a new integrated optoelectronic III-V device. You have to be aware of everything and how they all interconnect in one beautiful, mathematical stream.

I find the creativity of screenwriters and directors to be inspirational, so I help fund small films. I started at the Kickstarter level, but graduated a bit to more financial and creative support, and now have a list of over 100 short films that I’ve supported, including as producer and executive producer. A few of these are under my IMDB listing.

I write songs; I have some 150 of these now—some of these are on YouTube and SoundCloud, performed by other bands and artists. I won’t tell you which! Some have been performed at venues with audiences of about 20,000.

As to The Future Chronicles, I should be clear that I don’t read submitted stories; I commission them, based on already-published work by the authors. I read, then I make a decision on whether I, personally, would like to read more from that author. The Future Chronicles is a reflection of my personal reading preferences – I just hope that my preferences overlap with those of other readers.

So I buy a lot of books. And I mean, a lot. Hundreds for my e-readers, and scores of paperbacks. Speculative fiction, mysteries and thrillers, literary fiction, mainly. If you want my recommendations for new reading material in speculative fiction, the new authors I recommend are right there beside me in the pages of The Future Chronicles. They’re the new Silver Age.

About Anthony Vicino (12 Articles)
Anthony Vicino has erected a word-fortress in the cyber-slum over at where he writes about anything and everything SFF related. Stop over and see what he's scribbling on the wall.
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